Can This Photographer Save Beirut’s Architectural Treasures?

In the ensuing weeks, Mrad helped conduct damage assessments on behalf of people applying to the army for compensation for the cost of repairs. While visiting a site, he spotted a man standing in a blown-out apartment across the way, backlit by a glassless window frame. A banner hung over the balcony the floor below, memorializing one of its residents.

“The port is right behind this building. It was striking to see a banner of a man who had died in the explosion, and the people in the upper floors trying to see what happened to their apartment.”

Most of the buildings in that area, Mrad says, were built between the 1950s and 1970s. While not as opulent or ancient as the triple-arched palaces in the hills of Ashrafieh, this part of town is a vestige of Beirut’s late modernist era, when the capital was an alluring destination for intellectuals, artists, and celebrities before the country descended into civil war. “It’s not just the heritage houses [that need preserving], it’s an entire city that’s been damaged.… It’s an international catastrophe—not just for Beirut,” Mrad says.

While local NGOs like Offrejoie are working hard to renovate the area and facilitate the safe return of its original residents, neighborhoods like these in and around Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh are ground zero for gentrification, largely populated by an aging renter class that many fear could be displaced for good. Although a law was passed disallowing land sales in areas affected by the blast and mandating that rental contracts and prices cannot be changed for one year, it isn’t being properly enforced, and evictions still happen.

August 17, 2020. 

December 6, 2020. 

Mrad eventually left his job at the real estate company, after it shifted its business outside of the apocalyptic capital. “I felt like I needed to be in Beirut around the heritage houses,” he says, explaining his decision to forgo a steady income as the situation in Lebanon—which has dipped in and out of lockdown since the coronavirus pandemic began—grows ever more desperate, sparking a new exodus from the country.

Not long after, Mrad partnered with the Beirut Heritage Initiative, a collective of advocates and experts in the preservation space that was launched in the wake of the explosion to rehabilitate Ashrafieh’s architectural heritage, taking a holistic approach aimed at restoring residences as well social life and public spaces. He’s also received interest from various organizations hoping to use his photos in fundraising initiatives. The fact that his photo archive was so current, mostly from 2020, makes the impact of the blast even clearer.

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